All posts by erikbenjamin95

How Fantasy Sports Explains the World: What Pujols and Peyton Can Teach Us About Wookies and Wall Street

Author: AJ Mass

Pages: 216

My biggest complaint about AJ Mass’s book is that, quite frankly, it is well ahead of its time. Authored in 2010, Mass writes about fantasy sports like only a true expert can, with knowledge and candor. However, because it is in 2010, it is firmly rooted in a context of fantasy sports being popular, but far from the cultural phenomenon it is today. Reading in 2016, you can see the seeds that were planted for fantasy sports to break out, and if anything, Mass’s exploration of how the activity blends with our lives might show us how exactly this game became so popular.

While AJ Mass is a Newhouse alum (lots of fun ‘cuse references in the book!), I had heard of him long before Syracuse was even on my radar. I am a die hard Survivor fan, and it turns out, so is Mass. In his book, he discusses the 12 types of personalities a fantasy league needs to succeed, which in reality is a look at the various social patterns of a group, any group. Thus, Mass would come on my favorite podcast, and when there were 12 contestants left on Survivor, or later Big Brother, he would assign each contestant a personality. More so, he would predict how successful the contestant would be strictly based on which archetype they fell in, and watching the show, the predictions would be scarily accurate. When you read, it’s fun to apply these types to any group, whether it is the obvious (your fantasy league), or the not-so-obvious (maybe your fraternity).

I have heard Mass plug his book on this podcast for literally years, so I figured now was the time to dig in and actually read it. I was pleased to find more Survivor references, with heavy discussion on one of the most controversial moves the show has ever seen (won’t give away any spoilers). One section of the book that seems particularly prescient is the discussion of electoral voters abandoning their states’ popular votes. I do not need to discuss the relevance of this chapter (just look at the blog title), but Mass’s inclusion of the topic just goes to show you that yes, fantasy sports might just explain the world. He discusses this principle as something that is technically legal, but it is not necessarily just or right, similar to  the idea of benching your defense when you’re guaranteed to win your matchup, in fear of getting negative points and losing. Yes, you’re allowed to do it, but that’s not the real game.

Essentially a freakanomics for fantasy sports, this is a quick and fun read with lots of popular culture and sports references for any fan. I cannot help but be biased towards Mass, as his combination of Survivor and Syracuse love make him a favorite of mine. There are a lot of baseball references and acronyms in here, which I personally find a bit dense, but if you like baseball, you’ll have no trouble at all. Overall, Mass uses our fantasy leagues as a framework for decision making, interacting with each other, and making personal decisions. In fantasy, we create our own little communities, so fantasy sports do not only explain the world, but in a way, they also create one.

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Belichick and Brady: Two Men, the Patriots, and How They Revolutionized Football

Author: Michael Holley

Pages: 398

There are few people I respect, in any profession, as much as Tom Brady and Bill Belichick. These are two men who simply win. It might not be pretty, and they might not be loved by all, but they get the job done. In fact, I think this book is a testament to what can be accomplished when you focus on achieving an objective, rather than pleasing the masses.

Going into this book by Michael Holley, my primary expectation was to learn more about Brady and Belichick and gain some insight into them as people. While this was accomplished, what this book actually delivers is a history of Boston sports during the 21st century, but from the very focused perspective of the New England Patriots. We start in 2000, with a depleted team in a city that has not tasted victory in a number of decades. By the time we’re caught up to the present, Boston has become a city of champions, with the city hosting victory parades for the Patriots, Celtics, Red Sox, and Bruins within this 20 year span.

This book dedicates a chapter, maybe two, to each Patriots season. We go through the events inside the NFL, but also how these games related to the events of both the city and the country. The city of Boston is a character in and of itself, personified by both the players and fans who live there. These are people who stick by their teams no matter what, and can defend them with passion and intelligence to boot.

While there are grand, sweeping narratives of Boston on the macro level of this book, on the micro there is a theme: succeeding in the face of adversity. We go through Brady’s story, which almost everyone knows, but it personifies the ideals of a winner. He comes to Michigan as the #4 quarterback, and though hard work and dedication, hustled his way to be a starter, though he had to share snaps. In the NFL, he was drafted 199 (as almost everyone knows), and once in the league, he simply put his head down and worked. He moved up the depth chart quickly, and when his number was called, he was ready. When he went down in 2008, he quickly got back up in 2009, and has embodied a champion ever since.

Belichick has faced just as much adversity. He inherited a hugely dysfunctional team, and engineered them into an army that could win even with me playing as quarterback. Belichick displays not only the value of pure dedication, but also resourcefulness and cleverness. He sees diamonds in the rough, and turns them into top tier jewelry. The book discusses Belichick’s “draft flipping” in depth, as he drafts a player late, makes them into superstars, and then can trade them for even greater picks. He instills a culture of thriftiness and dedication at the top, and Holley outlines how this trickles down to every member of the organization. The Patriots are not only a team, but a mindset that every player has seemingly taken with them far beyond football. 

People in life make mistakes. Once they are made, you have two options: you can wallow in sadness and regret, or you can move and grow. The Patriots, as a franchise, represent the latter. Whether it is Spygate, Deflategate, or the irredeemable actions of Aaron Hernandez, this is a group that certainly has blemishes on the resume, but responds by making the best of a bad situation. While scandal can ruin a front office, The Patriots only got stronger using their minds and trusting their process.

On a more technical level, I really enjoyed this book! It is very well written, and spans a rather long time period in a concise and organized manner. Sometimes it was difficult to keep the characters straight, but someone with decent football knowledge should have no issue. The focus is not too heavy on the book’s namesakes, but the story is great anyways. I would’ve liked to learn more about Belichick personally, but it goes well with his workmanlike personality that we see him strictly in a professional light.

Overall, if you enjoy football, this is a great read. It takes some time, but you’ll get a very thorough history of an amazing team. It might not make you like the Patriots, but you’ll certainly respect them.

And, oh yeah, Goodell is the worst.

The Secret Life of the American Musical: How Broadway Shows Are Built

Author: Jack Viertel

Pages: 312

While my love for movies and TV shows is very well publicized, one of my other passions is musical theater. I have been seeing theater since I was a small child, and few things can make me as happy as a great musical. Like a good book, they have the ability to transport you to a different world, while the best ones reflect the real one we live in.

Jack Viertel has concisely and intelligently broken down what exactly makes a musical work in The Secret Life of the American Musical: How Broadway Shows Are Built. This book not only deconstructs some amazing shows on the structural level, but also discusses what can and cannot resonate on a cultural level.

We often think of art as a one sided process: the artist creates. This book, however, is so strong because it approaches musicals from the audience’s point of view. Unlike a painting or a photograph, musicals are not necessarily strong because of technical aesthetics, but gain strength from the emotion it generates from the audience. Thus, the technical aspects of what makes a broadway show work are not necessarily defined by the artists’ set of rules, but by the stimuli they create in our brain, and if they really work, in our heart.

I do not want to give away too many details, but I’m currently working in my spare time of adapting a beloved comedy into a musical. I’m not necessarily writing it, but it’s a project that I really want to undertake in some capacity. One question I’ve been addressing is the fitness of this story for a musical, so reading this book really gave me some clarity. Viertel lays out the basic format for a show song-by-song, and while reading, I pictured my project in the context of these songs. Surprisingly, after reading this book, I’m more encouraged by my project! I think it would really work for the stage, and this book should be a valuable resource for anyone working on a musical theater project. (Reach out to me if you want to know specific details…don’t want people stealing my ideas!)

I would recommend this book to two different types of people: those who love musicals, and those who really have no interest in them. If you love musicals, this book is perfect for you. There are so many amazing references to the shows you love, and many even the biggest theater fan has probably never heard of.

If you don’t like musicals, however, I would highly suggest you read this because at the very least, it very clearly lays out the appeal, and why, when they work, they work so damn well. You will walk away not only for an appreciation for the great pieces, but for the art form in itself.